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by Dan Semrad
All photos courtesy of Dan Semrad
People often ask me, what got you into freediving? Apparently, pursuing a career in breath-hold diving doesn’t seem like a logical choice for a guy born and raised in Oregon. The answer to that question is undeniably spearfishing.
I grew up loving the water. Truth be told, I was freediving long before I knew that it was a formal sport; before I knew it had risks associated with it; and before I knew it was even a real option. At that point I fell into the most dangerous group of freedivers, the untrained and task-loaded solo divers. In my mind I was snorkeling, albeit aggressive snorkeling, but snorkeling nonetheless. I couldn’t dive very deep or my ears would scream at me and the resulting barotitis media [damage to the middle ear from pressure changes] would render me functionally deaf until it resolved. Of course, that wouldn’t stop me from hitting the water whenever I could.
It wasn’t until I had finished my master’s degree in education that I started my formal dive training and got scuba certified. I was hooked. I started helping with every course, advancing through the ranks until ultimately earning my scuba instructor credentials with the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI).
Somewhere along the line I found an old speargun in a shop and asked about it. Being a science teacher with a love for environmental science, I have always felt that it is important to know where my food comes from, and I have always done my best to raise, grow, or harvest my own food. I also love to fish and am aware of the problems associated with our commercial fisheries, environmentally speaking. So spearfishing appealed to me as both an application of diving and as a way to sustainably harvest food for my family and friends.
For The Love of Breath-hold
As I became more proficient and more connected with our local spearfishing community, I realized that spearing on scuba wasn’t universally accepted. I started getting gentle nudges to start spearing on breath-hold. At the time I thought that freedivers were a pretty crazy bunch, and I honestly had zero interest in freediving beyond about 40 ft/12 m for more than a minute. That gave me all the time I needed to hunt our local targets of lingcod, rockfish, and cabezon.
I took my first freediving course with that goal in mind. My mindset was that I would do the breath-hold required, learn the technique, and then spearfish safely. However,
I would never really use it for anything more than shallow Northwest spearfishing.
Little did I know that it would change my life.
Upon taking my first course, I fell in love with freediving and spearfishing on breath-hold. I had already come to the realization that local spearfishing was not very challenging when you have a tank on your back. Not that doing it on breath-hold leveled the playing field, but pursuing my dinner underwater while holding my breath definitely added a new element of fairness and adventure to the hunt, and I loved it. I also observed that the marine environment interacted with me differently and I with it when I entered the water on breath-hold versus when I was on scuba. I wanted more.
I became comfortable exceeding my initial goals and was curious how far I could actually go. So I continued my training and eventually became a freediving instructor, and then an instructor trainer for both NAUI and Performance Freediving International (PFI). As divers we are drawn to the water, but I felt the pull in such a way that I decided to leave my job teaching high school–and scuba–and pursue my passion for breath-hold diving. I discovered that I enjoy the pursuit of depth on the line and the mental challenge of pushing for longer static breath-holds. I enjoy diving deeper on a breath-hold than I do on scuba, but if I am diving for fun, I always come back to spearfishing.
I often get mixed responses to my passion for spearfishing. The most common response is from onlookers who are genuinely interested in what I’m doing and about the fish I catch. Even the hook-and-line folk whom we share sites with will more often than not be excited about what we are doing and ask us where the fish are holding, or if we can find that favorite jig they lost earlier in the day. Occasionally, though, I run across someone with a negative perception of what we do. My approach to this is to always be respectful, ask questions to understand their point of view, and then respectfully advocate for responsible spearfishing.
In my mind, spearfishing–and especially spearfishing on breath-hold in the Pacific Northwest–is the most sustainable way to harvest seafood. If you enjoy eating seafood, harvesting it yourself is the most responsible way to do it. On the flip side, I also try to educate my fellow spearos on what species we target and when, being mindful of reproductive cycles and growth rates. I encourage them to be good representatives for our sport and our community. We often talk about the food quality of a trophy size fish versus a smaller fish, or the fecundity of a large female lingcod and how many smaller lingcod it would take to produce the same number of eggs. Once a harvest is made, we discuss what images we should put on social media and how we can be respectful of our catch and the community.
When considering my personal hunting/harvesting, I try to make sure that every day in the water is focused on safety and enjoyment. Earlier this year, my team and I had the opportunity to go after a couple of world records for spearfishing, and we were successful. Even on the days where a trophy fish is the target, we focus on fish that are part of a sustainable stock, and we are very selective in our harvest by only taking the fish we need that day. I enjoy the interaction as much as the harvest.
Finding the fish and then leading it to where you can present your shot takes a lot of patience and practice. Some of my most memorable fish were ones that I ultimately passed on for one reason or another. I will always remember a drop in Hawaii where I called in a large uhu from way down the reef, after my buddy had spooked it. I had set up behind a coral head banked by a wall creating a natural pinch point. The fish became curious, swam across the reef to investigate, and went right through the pinch that I had set up, providing me with the perfect shot. As the fish–which was larger than any uhu I had seen in a long time–swam past, I just enjoyed watching it carry out its business. I was flying out the next day and knew there was no way I would use all of that catch, so I left it on the reef.
Freedive spearfishing provides an incredible way to enjoy our marine environment and harvest fresh food. It is about a lot more than simply going out and shooting whatever you can: It is the most selective way to get dinner, and most spear fishermen and women are some of the strongest ocean advocates out there. Our passion lies not only in hunting but in becoming part of the marine environment. I am not alone in my sentiments about leaving fish more often than taking them.
If you are interested in spearfishing on breath-hold, please take a freediving class first. Learn the technique, and, more importantly, the freediving safety protocols. Taking a local spearfishing course is also a great way to speed you on your learning curve and to ensure that you get off to a good and safe start.
Dan Semrad II is the NAUI Freedive Training Coordinator, an Instructor Trainer (IT) for NAUI, for both freediving and scuba, and a PFI IT. Dan is a professional educator with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in teaching. After becoming a scuba instructor, Dan wrote curriculum enabling his high school science students to earn scuba certification, a high school science credit, and a college credit. Before leaving full-time public education to pursue a career in freediving, Dan was the recipient of MIT’s “Excite Award” for innovative classroom projects. Dan left the scuba shop that he co-founded to start The Oregon Freediving Company, the first freediving shop in Oregon, which caters to all types of freediving with emphasis on spearfishing. Dan has coached athletes to national records; worked as a competition safety diver on multiple national records; competed in spearfishing tournaments; and assisted in world-record spearfishing trips. His website is www.oregonfreediving.com, which includes a course and events schedule. You can also contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Journey Into the Unknown
Sailor, diver, and professional software implementation consultant turned adventure blogger Michael Chahley shares his quest to discover the unknowns of our world by stepping out of his comfort zone. Are you ready to take the plunge?
By Michael Chahley
The engine roars to life, launching me out of a deep slumber and into reality. “That’s not good,” I think out loud. Rocking in my bunk inside the sailboat, I realize the wind is still driving us against the ocean swell. We do not need to be using the engine right now, so why is it on? Bracing myself, I climb into the cockpit as Paul, the captain, swings us over hard to starboard while staring wide-eyed ahead into the darkness. We are on a collision course with an Indonesian fishing boat shrouded in darkness, and it’s close enough to violate the ceiling of a safety stop. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I count a handful of men staring back at us as they also take evasive action. One of them is standing at the railing brushing his teeth while we run parallel alongside one another for a moment.
Luckily for us we didn’t collide. I went back to sleep with another adventure to share. If you were to meet me today, working a full-time job in Canada alongside Lake Ontario as it freezes, it would not be obvious I spent two of the past four years traveling. Balancing a life of adventure with one of responsibility, I feel fortunate to have explored some very remote places in our world–both above and below the water. But before I was able to explore the Pacific Ocean, I first had to navigate a personal path of conflicting identities in order to find the confidence to jump into the unknown.
For my entire life, I have been more comfortable in the water than on land. My childhood memories consist of watching my parents dive under the water for hours at a time and swim in the currents of the Thousand Islands in the Great Lakes region of North America. I followed the predictable path of our society. I worked hard, achieved an engineering degree, and secured a job. Fortunately, I was able to continue exploring the outdoors with this busy life. Long weekends were spent diving in the Great Lakes or camping in the back-country. I was comfortable enough; however, there was no real satisfaction in my life. As the years ticked by, the gap between my reality and dream world grew. Something had to change, but I did not know where to find the catalyst.
Like any other armchair traveler, I idolized the explorers from the Age of Discovery. Adventure books weighed down my bookshelf while travel documentaries glowed on the TV screen in my room at night. I understood what made me happy, but I was unsure of what I stood for and believed in. I was living a life in conflict with the trajectory I wanted to be on, but I had no idea of how to become an ‘explorer’ who lived a life in pursuit of the unknown. While commuting to work each day in a crowded subway, I daydreamed of sailing the oceans and exploring the underwater world. As I grew increasingly more frustrated, one day I unloaded my concerns on a friend. They had the nerve to say I was ‘living in a dream world’ and needed to focus more on my real life. This hurt to hear at first, but then it dawned on me! If dreaming was a part of my life, then why couldn’t I make it a reality, too? This was the catalyst I needed.
I finally understood that even though others might see my dreams as frivolous, it was okay for me to follow a path that was meaningful for me. Like a weight lifted from my shoulders, I discovered it was okay to be uncomfortable with the status quo. With this in mind, I quit my job, packed a bag, and with no concrete plans, bought a one-way ticket to go halfway around the world.
One-Way Ticket To Ride
I found myself flying to the Marshall Islands with a one-way ticket to meet someone I had only communicated with over email. The customs officer did not find it amusing, but after some tactful negotiation, I was let into the country and even offered a free ride to the marina. It was 2016, and I was on my way to meet Tom, the captain of a 53-foot, steel-hull ketch named Karaka. Tom invited me to join his crew and help them sail across the Pacific. Even though blue-water sailing was new to me, for him it was a lifestyle. He was nearing the end of a 12-year circumnavigation after saving Karaka from a scrapyard in Hong Kong. Along the way, he would have crew join him as a co-operative, which is how I ended up spending eight months on his boat exploring the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.
When not visiting uninhabited atolls, the outer communities we visited were so isolated that we were asked to help out by delivering fuel, cooking oil, and mail. During this trip, our daily routine consisted of free diving on pristine coral reefs, gathering coconuts, and sharing meals with some of the friendliest people in the world. From spearfishing with the local fishermen, exploring the shipwrecks and ruins of World War II, and partaking in long walks on the beach or up a volcano, it was a new adventure every day. As a shipwreck enthusiast, I am incredibly grateful to have had an opportunity to free dive to within sight of the HIJMS Nagato in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and to dive on Japanese Zeros in waters of Rabaul. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined myself exploring these regions of the world; reality had transcended my childhood fantasies.
Just like diving is for many of us, once I started traveling, the passion grew and is now a core part of my identity. Flash-forward to earlier this year, and I am back in the capital of Papua New Guinea helping Paul and his partner repair their 34-foot sloop named Amanda-Trabanthea for a journey out of the country and into Indonesia. Adventurers themselves, they had just returned to their boat after sailing through the Northwest Passage. Over three months we managed to visit some of the most hospitable and isolated regions of Papua New Guinea and Eastern Indonesia. I was lucky enough to go diving in Port Moresby, the Banda Islands, Wakatobi, Komodo, Lombok, and Bali. By the time we survived the near-collision with a fishing boat, I had come to expect the unexpected and cherish the exciting moments in life.
Explore The Unknown
Diving and sailing share a lot of similarities. Both are perfect for getting off the well-beaten track to explore places of our world few have ever seen. We must be confident in our abilities and have the appropriate training to safely handle the unexpected. A strong technical understanding of the physics and equipment required to operate safely is very important. Meticulous planning is essential for completing long passages and technical dives. But most importantly, it is the adventure from exploring new places that makes it so fun and gives us reasons to continue doing this. I strongly believe that communities such as GUE play a pivotal role in society by encouraging and promoting exploration within the individual. With time, I will combine my passion for both diving and sailing to help discover some of the most remote and beautiful corners of our world. If you have never sailed before, I highly recommend it.
I am back in Toronto where this journey began. I’m working full-time; however, this time with a much more solid understanding of myself and as well as a greater appreciation of the world we share. Only by stepping outside of my comfort zone to explore our world I was able to overcome the uncertainty that kept me from living an authentic life. Author Dale Dauten put it succinctly, “Success is an act of exploration. That means the first thing you have to find is the unknown. Learning is searching; anything else is just waiting.’’
During my travels, I realized that we cannot let others define us. We must reach beyond personal boundaries, take a risk, and venture into the unknown. In doing so, we become explorers in our own reality, which is the only reality that matters. So, rather than daydream about future adventures, we need to believe we can incorporate those dreams into our lives. All we have to do is to dare to take that first step into the unknown.
Michael Chahley is a professional software implementation consultant and an industrial engineering graduate from the University of Toronto. A finalist for GUE’s 2019 NextGEN Scholarship, he is a passionate diver, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, and an experienced traveller. Founder of the online blog Nothing Unknown.com, Michael is on a quest to discover the unknowns of our world and share them with you. He lives in Toronto, Canada, and can be reached at @NUDiscover on social media or his email email@example.com.
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